Dogged pursuit

Jarvis Jones went from USC to UGA to the top of NFL draft boards

Originally Published: October 4, 2012
By Jordan Conn | ESPN The Magazine

Jarvis JonesKelly Kline for ESPN The MagazineUGA fans hope Jones leads them to their first SEC title since 2005.

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TWO AND A half years and more than 2,000 miles ago, Jarvis Jones was just another washed-up football player, shooting pickup hoops at a Southern California gym. After eight promising games as a true freshman linebacker for USC, Jones was sidelined indefinitely with a neck injury, barred from putting on his pads or helmet. "It was," he says, "depressing."

The injury occurred against Oregon on Halloween in 2009. By all accounts, it was a routine hit, but after staying on the turf for a few seconds, he was removed from the game. Within days, he found himself in the hospital, where a specialist told him he had a "mild" case of spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column. "I've seen this over and over again," Jones remembers the doctor saying. "If you play the game long enough, things like this will happen."

The doctor told Jones he would be fine and he could play again. But the Trojans' team doctors thought the injury was much more serious and refused to clear him for contact; they eventually recommended that Jones retire from football. So the then-20-year-old spent his days wandering from class to the basketball gym to the weight room. "Just like a regular student," he says. Just a 6'3", 241-pound student who considered trying out for USC's basketball team.

"But in my head," Jones says, "I never let go of the fact that the first specialist told me I'd be okay."

In fact, he's been better than okay. Now an All-American for the No. 5 Georgia Bulldogs, Jones is arguably the best defender in college football, a master of technique with a sixth sense for tracking down quarterbacks. A year after leading the SEC with 13.5 sacks, Jones has continued to camp out in opponents' backfields this season. Following a 41-20 win over Missouri on Sept. 8, in which Jones had two sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles, ESPN Insider Mel Kiper Jr. moved Jones to the top of his NFL draft Big Board, where he remains. More than on athleticism and strength, though, Jones will tell you he excels because of a certain learned relentlessness. "Every film session, every rep in the weight room, every play," Jones says, "I treat it like it's my last. Going through what I've gone through, I understand you never know when it's all going to be taken away."

Jarvis has it all. It's not even fair.

-- Ken Norton Jr., former USC linebacker coach

When Jones was 15, his older brother, Darcell Kitchens, was murdered outside of a bar in Richland, Ga. The tragedy nearly derailed Jones academically before he even reached high school, as a spate of skipped classes and fistfights led to multiple expulsions. But eventually his brother's memory served as inspiration. The football field became his outlet.

Emerging from Carver High School in Columbus, Ga., Jones was a sought-after ESPN 150 recruit with a simple plan: Head west to learn under USC's then-linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. "I was ready to win championships and then go to the NFL," he says. Almost immediately upon arrival, Jones made it clear he had what it took to succeed. "A lot of guys have speed, but they're not tough," Norton says. "Then some guys are tough but slow. Then there are guys who have all of that but no football smarts or work ethic. Jarvis has it all. It's not even fair." Norton, like Jones, truly believed the Trojans had signed their next great linebacker.

Then the hit happened. Jones broke off a blitz to make a tackle on a short check-down pass, but the Oregon receiver slid underneath, causing Jones' head to connect with the hip of a teammate. "I felt my shoulders go numb," he says.

After an unsettling moment, Jones rose and headed to the sideline, where medical staff immediately ran tests and determined he had a neck sprain. He missed the remainder of USC's 47-20 loss. When he returned to LA, Jones saw the specialist who buoyed his hopes of returning -- before the Trojans' doctors sunk them. Jones sat out the next game. He didn't play the next week either, or the next. Jones' status was still unclear when the season ended. "It seemed like just a regular linebacker injury," says Norton, who followed USC head coach Pete Carroll to the Seattle Seahawks after the season. "I don't think any of us thought it'd be as serious as it turned out."

Spring 2010 arrived with new coach Lane Kiffin at the helm, but the team doctors' prognosis remained the same. "There's a serious concern," Kiffin told reporters before spring practice, "that hits or a number of hits could lead to permanent damage."

At a loss, Jones began to wonder if other team doctors would clear him. So Carver High coach Dell McGee called Georgia, Florida State and Alabama on Jones' behalf. Not surprisingly, all of the coaches said that if doctors cleared him, they wanted him.

First, Jones received clearance from a doctor in North Carolina. Next, Georgia coach Mark Richt was by his side as he underwent tests at a hospital in Athens, three hours north of Columbus. "When Jarvis told me he missed drinking sweet tea," Richt says, "I knew we had a good chance." Once those Georgia doctors officially gave Jones their blessing, he sat with Richt at a nearby restaurant in June 2010. "Coach," Jones said, "I'm a Dawg."

Much like Norton drew Jones to USC, recently hired defensive coordinator Todd Grantham revved up the linebacker to come to Georgia. Shortly before giving Richt his commitment, Jones sat in a local Cracker Barrel as Grantham, fresh off a stint as D-line coach for the Dallas Cowboys, explained how he'd use him in the Bulldogs' new 3-4 system. The two instantly bonded over a shared obsession with the finer points of technique.

Watch Jones on a Saturday and you'll see their vision come to life. He explodes at the snap, going from stance to engagement to running free in the backfield in what seems like nanoseconds. Scary thing is, Jones has been a true pass rusher for only one season. At the start of his freshman year at Carver High, he was a receiver. Jones hated it. Tight end was no better. His junior year, he found a home at middle linebacker, mostly plugging holes. Not until 2011, after his redshirt year in Athens, did he finally move outside.

Ask teammates to explain Jones' ability to dismantle offensive linemen and they don't mention his truck-width shoulders or his quick first step. They point to something barely noticeable on the field: his hands. "He always has a new move," says Georgia junior offensive tackle Kenarious Gates. "If you leave your hands where he can get ahold of them, you don't have a chance. He'll embarrass you."

Kiper is adamant that Jones can be just as effective on Sundays next season. In what appears to be a weak offensive draft pool, Jones has an opportunity to be the first linebacker selected No. 1 overall since Aundray Bruce in 1988. "He has the elite skills that you look for," says Kiper, who projects Jones' impact to be on par with that of Von Miller, the 2011 NFL defensive rookie of the year for the Broncos. "Size, speed, strength, explosiveness, range. And his intangibles are off the charts."

Still, while his play speaks for itself, there's no putting the hit behind him yet. As the 2013 draft approaches, Jones' neck will likely be evaluated once more. "There are no absolutes when it comes to stenosis," says ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell, a board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist. "It's not uncommon for doctors to have differing opinions, and players must be evaluated on an individual basis. But if the condition is severe, injury could result in permanent neurological damage."

Jones insists that his neck is fine. No pain. No numbness. He says the injury's lone lingering effect is mental: "I know what it's like to not have this game in my life."

And now he knows the will it takes to get it all back.

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Jordan Conn

    Jordan Conn (@jordanconn) is a staff writer for Grantland. He wrote The Defender: Manute Bol's Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.